The Coolest Tech Tour Ever: A Look At How SRI Is Augmenting The Human Condition

Editor’s note: the following is a guest post by Robert Scoble, who studies tech startups and innovators for Rackspace Hosting. His videos usually go up on Rackspace’s Building43. In the post he shares a tour he recently got of SRI International, the Silicon Valley R&D lab where the computer mouse was invented. It also has played a role in many other things, from Disneyland to Polaris Missiles and armor for tanks, not to mention it was one of the first four nodes on the Internet.

You might be like my friends, who thought that the computer mouse was invented at PARC, Xerox’s R&D lab.

It wasn’t.

Instead the computer mouse was invented by Douglas Engelbart at SRI International and, in the mother of all demos, showed it, and a number of other key features of computing that we all know like windows and hypertext, off in December, 1968.

Since then SRI International, which employs 1,700 researchers, has been busy on a number of things from radar, ultrasound imaging, remote surgery, and much more. It has also been incubating a few things that have turned into startups. My favorite example is Siri, which is an assistant for your iPhone. Apple bought that last year for a rumored $200+ million and I’ve been hearing rumors that we’ll see some of that work as part of the iPhone 5 launch later this year. More about Siri later.

I wondered “what is SRI International” up to now and do they have anything interesting cooking that could turn into another interesting startup?

That led to this tour, where Norman Winarsky, VP of Ventures at SRI, and Bill Mark, VP of Information Sciences Division at SRI, introduce me to many of the people who work there and show me around many of its most interesting labs.

Because this tour was so extensive, I’ve split it up into separate videos so you can watch what you’re interested in and get a sense of just how many diverse projects this influential R&D lab is. At the end you can listen into the venture capitalists who funded Siri and hear about the process that company went through during its acquisition by Apple.

Let’s kick it off with an introduction to the tour where you’ll meet Norman and Bill.

Next you’ll see an augmented reality system, built for the military, where a soldier can get training at a much lower expense than before. How? It replaces human actors with computer-generated ones that a soldier can “see” by wearing a helmet that includes a camera and glasses with a screen inside.

What could this be used for in real world? How about training of customer service agents? Or police officers?

To continue on the augmented reality theme, Norman and Bill next introduce me to “shopping of the future.” Using a Microsoft Kinect system someone at home could try on a variety of different items. In the demo, titled “Magic Mirror,” we see that a consumer could try a number of different handbags and see how they actually look as they virtually carry them around.

But how do we actually augment humans in another way? For instance, can we make an iPhone that takes spoken English text and translates it to some other language? Well, at SRI International they next brought me over to Kristin Precoda, director of SRI’s Speech Technology and Research, who demoed me a translation system. This system is being used in military in Afghanistan and other places in the world. It’s an amazing system, but will need work to build it out for consumer applications (most consumer uses would be in languages like Chinese, Japanese, or European languages like French or German and the system does none of those since it was developed for military purposes).

After getting my mind blown by the translation technology, what could we do with the iPhone’s camera? Well, SRI has invented an image processing technology they call “fusion.” Here they show us how they can fuse images together taken at different focus positions, which will let you get one image that’s sharp at all of them. Plus, they can combine images done at different exposures, which extends the dynamic range. Features like these have already shown up in cameras and software like Adobe’s Photoshop, but they go further with fun image replacement technology.

What else could these smart developers do with cameras? Well, how about an iPhone app that could help you track what you eat? Aim this iPhone app at food and it measures it and calculates how many calories the food contains. Since my dad just had a kidney transplant and needed to measure all of his food, this app means a lot to me. But imagine a future Foodspotting app that could share not just a photo, but caloric info about that ribeye steak you are considering eating! You’ll notice this isn’t ready for consumers yet, they need to make it work smoother because it needs you to capture five images so it can do its calculations.

After that we moved to another part of the building and while walking Bill and Norman told me about all the work that SRI had done on medical robots that help surgeons do their work (Intuitive Surgical was spun out of the work done here) but what is the latest work they are doing?

Well, they’ve developed systems that let a surgeon work thousands of miles away from the patient. This keeps battlefield costs down, but as it is privatized it can bring great healthcare to people around the world. A surgeon who lives in Palo Alto could operate on someone in Africa, using these devices. Here Tom Lowe, director of medical robotics at SRI, shows me several machines, in two parts, to see both the existing machines in the field now, as well as next-generation machines that give haptic feedback.

In the second part of the medical robotic demos, Tom shows me a machine with much higher resolution 3D imagery as well it includes haptic feedback. In other words, this machine can let you “feel” how much force is being applied by the robot (very important if you were defusing a bomb, for instance).

But how else can robots be used to augment human capabilities? How about a robot that can walk up walls or windows to look for cracks or other things that need to be fixed up?

Harsha Prahlad, research engineer at SRI, showed me around his lab, explained all sorts of things they are doing using electro adhesion. Whoa, what’s that? Well, adhesives used to only be chemical glues, right? Now they’ve replaced the glue with static electricity. He explains how it works and shows me several different use cases and robots.

This stuff is amazing. It can stick to anything. Glass. Concrete. Peeling paint. It doesn’t need suction to “stick.” I’ve never seen anything like it.

What else can you use static electricity for? Well, they started playing around and found they could make artificial muscles. See how they work here. These small muscles can compress and contract very quickly and they show a demo where it makes an iPhone have much better haptic feedback. Their technology is built into the Mophie Pulse, which is coming soon (I got an early demo and it definitely gives much better feedback than just the vibrator built into the iPhone).

While walking the hallways I saw a weird display case with some destroyed rings and asked them if I could turn on the camera and learn more. Turned out we were near the Poulter Lab, where they solve practical problems in explosions, impacs, and fire and their effects on materials and structures. In this segment I learned all about “impulsive loads” and now you will too as they show you some of the things they are doing now, including trying to find materials that will stand up to weapons. Gives new meaning to bulletproof glass. The stories this team can tell are lots of fun.

Finally, in a previous visit, I sat down with Norman and the VCs who funded Siri, the company that sold to Apple, and got the inside scoop in a two-part video (part I, part II). This is a rare look at how VCs think and how technology moves out of SRI and into your hands. Since I ran those videos before, I’ll let you go and watch them and won’t embed them here.

Lastly on our tour Bill and Norman wrap up our day. What a great tour and it’s a rare look inside SRI. Thank you to Bill and Norman for opening up the doors to me and giving me one of my favorite technology company tours ever.